Lawmakers wrestled with Tennessee's big questions confronting the merits of preschool on Tuesday after viewing early results from a Vanderbilt University study.
At stake is the future of the state's publicly funded voluntary preschool program, geared toward readying low-income children for kindergarten.
Lawmakers want to know: Does preschool help children prepare, and do the benefits help them succeed, long-term, as they grow up?
They've asked as they weigh expansion of state-funded preschool. That kind of proposal isn't on the table this legislative session, but it has been debated in anticipation of the study.
Mark Lipsey, director of the university's Peabody Research Institute, presented mixed answers, first published in August.
First, he said preschool definitely helps prepare 4-year-olds for kindergarten. But students who don't go to preschool catch up academically within that first year.
Other benefits, like attendance and learning good behavior, show promise of being boosted over the long run by preschooling, but full results aren't in, Lipsey said.
Prepared with an almost foot-high stack of studies and news clippings from his research, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, scrutinized the study and questioned whether prepping kids for kindergarten is worth a major expense. Expanding could cost $400 million, he said.
"This is such an important topic, it causes me emotional stress to think about this," Dunn said. "Money you spend one place, you have the opportunity cost. I think everybody here would like to give our teachers pay raises like the governor has asked. There's only so much money."
During 15 minutes of questioning and commentary, Dunn suggested other ways to prepare children, including the idea of a less costly program for kids the summer before they enter kindergarten.
Lipsey conceded that parents of preschoolers might not see superior academic performance over the long haul. But he said it's premature to write off other potential benefits.
The multi-year study compares students who did and didn't get into preschool. Lipsey anticipates following them through middle school — adding to what is already an unprecedented study of a state-funded pre-K program.
After the hearing, Dunn questioned how long-term benefits could emerge, later, after unimpressive first-year results.
"Where we are right now, the long-term trend is negative academically," he said. "It will be interesting to see if life comes from what is dead."